Fur and sustainability in the era of fast fashion

How consumers can lessen their environmental impact by downsizing their shopping habits.

People stand outside the Dolce & Gabbana store in New York.

Earth Day was just celebrated worldwide and sustainability continues to be a key practice in limiting climate change– especially when it comes to what we put in our closets.

According to the 2022 Fast Fashion Global Market Report by Research and Markets, the fast fashion market is projected to grow from $91.23 billion in 2021 to $99.23 billion over the course of 2022. Fast fashion is a phrase that refers to a brand strategy focusing on the rapid production and marketing of clothing. The clothing is typically made using inexpensive human labor and processed with cheap, harmful synthetic materials derived from coal and petroleum.

Fast fashion companies such as online style and beauty retailer Shein have partnered with the festival giant Coachella, despite the controversy the brand carries due to its allegations of human rights violations and environmental harm. According to research from Business of Fashion, Shein adds an average of 314,877 new items to its website daily.

One of the largest contributors to faux fur’s negative impact on the environment is the fast fashion industry, according to USC Dornsife Environmental Studies Associate Professor Victoria Petryshyn.

“It’s so quickly out of fashion that it gets thrown out,” Petryshyn said. “Not a lot of people thrift it, especially in the current culture because things go off trend so quickly; even if you give it to a thrift store, no one’s going to take it.”

While the fast fashion strategy has started to receive criticism out of ethical concern, one of the new aspects of global fashion has not: the booming faux fur industry. Faux fur has been celebrated due to its affordability and the ethical concerns about animal cruelty that come with real fur. Animal rights groups like PETA used strategies such as the star-studded “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign to push society from wearing and buying real animal skin products.

The pushback against real fur resulted in many companies, even luxury brands such as Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Stella McCartney and Hermes, renouncing fur and pursuing alternatives to use for their products.

However, as the ethical issue became resolved, the sustainability issue only continued to grow.

Faux fur found in affordable clothing stores such as Shein, H&M and Forever 21 is typically produced using polymers  derived from coal, water and petroleum– all of which are considered fossil fuels.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 11.3 million tons of textile waste was thrown into landfills by Americans in 2018.

“In terms of microfibre plastics, a lot of the acrylic plastics that are used are not easily recyclable,” Petryshyn said. “They can be recycled, but your average recycling place isn’t going to be able to handle them.”

Despite the environmental harm and labor issues that have resulted from the fast fashion and faux fur industries growth, there are many ways consumers can reduce their impact.

Here’s how you can do your part:

  • Reduce clothing waste to refrain from buying into microtrends. By shopping for the weather seasons rather than following small month-long trends, the amount of cheap clothing thrown away will decrease.
  • Repurpose old clothing; by turning a torn shirt into a Pinterest DIY or rag for cleaning, an item can have a second life.
  • Buy from second-hand thrift stores to help keep clothes out of landfills. Donating clothing or shoes that are still in good condition can assist others in finding quality items for an affordable price. However, it is also imperative to keep thrift stores accessible to the low-income communities they were made for rather than buying from second-hand shops in bulk to resell; it allows everyone the opportunity to find recycled clothing and contribute to the sustainability effort to reduce waste.

For more information about how to fight clothing waste and advocate for sustainable production practices, visit the United Nations Alliance for Sustainable Fashion website.